At half-past eleven in the morning, the time when he is supposed to open, the owner of my favorite Indian restaurant puts three sticks of incense in the ground by the bush in front of his door. He lights them with a match and then waves his hand through the fresh smoke. At the appropriate distance of six feet, I sniff the sweetish, musky scent of patchouli. He pauses to inhale the aroma, then locks his front door with three firm twists.

Illustration by Eliane Gerrits.

“Howdy!” the neighbor boy greets me from his front yard when I walk past. As always, he is on the lookout with his red watering can. He’s waiting for me to raise my hand to him with the same “Howdy!” Then he jumps up and down with pleasure.

At home, I take the leaves of green tea from the Japanese box and crumble them into my cup, rubbing them between my thumb and index finger. I squeeze a slice of lemon on top and wait until the leaves turn lighter. Then, after the water stops boiling, I pour it into my cup. I know, it’s not the official way, but that’s how I’ve been doing it for many years. With my hands cradling the cup, I take the first sip that tickles my throat.

Now that nothing is certain anymore, rituals give us something to hold on to. These might be pointless in the grand scheme of things, but ever so important for our peace of mind. With the care we devote to them, we mark the moment. The incense sticks, the unchanging greeting, my swirling tea leaves, they are steps on the stairways of time on which we stand still. For a moment we have the illusion that we can freeze time and cherish it in our hands, so that the moment is not lost. Rituals are pause buttons for life.

Because even though everything is being called into question, and we can only fear what is to come, we will soon pick up the thread of the life again, the one we once took for granted. Then we finish what we started. Make new plans and put new appointments in our calendar, for over a month, or after the summer, or next year.

Later, later, when the restaurants are full again and we no longer have to stand back or bump elbows, but can put a carefree, comforting arm around each other’s shoulders. When children no longer pose a danger to their parents and parents to their children. And when the beaming birthday boy with his paper crown is again celebrated in the classroom.

In the meantime, daffodils are popping up everywhere. The clear weather seems to give us some peace and quiet. Spring is back with all its colors and scents. Snowdrops, shrubs, blooming forsythia, the first delicate blossoms. In front of my window, the magnolia is about to erupt with colors. Just like in the old days, in my parents’ garden, I lie on my back under the tree and am enchanted by that cloud of pink that appears out of nowhere and stays with us so briefly, yet so memorably.

Nature also has her small rituals.

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at